Structure: Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 is my favorite movie of the year and it will be hard to beat this. Usually when my expectations are high, I end up disappointed. Not here.

The movie pays off on every possible level. It’s fun, emotional and has tremendous depth.

I have seen it three times, each in a different format, and the story easily withstands multiple viewings.  A few days ago I shared my views on the various technical formats. In short: I’m not overly excited about the whole 3D thing still. It’s just delivered very poorly.

But rejoice! Today we’re talking STORY!!

Yes, friends, Toy Story 3 is formulaic. Much like Toy Story 1 (See Paul Gulino’s excellent analysis in Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach), it follows an 8-Sequence Hero’s Journey structure with a powerful Mid Point Reversal. Still, it is delightfully complex as you can peel layer after layer from a wonderfully crafted script.

Trust me, this level of supremely high quality screenwriting you don’t get very often in cinemas. A team of the best story brains in the world labored over it for years, including one of the finest screenplayers of our generation. The result: the winner of the 2010 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. I’ll be damned if they don’t win.

I love doing these structural analyses and unfortunately I can’t always justify the time to write my notes with the breakdown. (At the time of this writing, I must apologize for still not having done this for the Gladiator breakdown)

This time, however, I found I had to give you at least something. Toy Story 3 is such an amazing example of successful sequential writing, as well as the pinnacle of Hero’s Journey structure. I know there are a few people out there still resisting the call from this type of structural approach but that’s fine. There’s two kinds of people in this world — Winners…and Losers. (LOL)

— massive spoilers ahead —

W.: Woody
B.: Buzz
MPH.: Mr. Potato Head
J.: Jessie
L.: Lotso
BB: Big Baby


Sequence A: “Andy is gonna take care of us. I guarantee it.” (15mins)

00.00    Pixar leaders + Title
01.00    W. vs. One-Eyed Bart & Betty (Mr. & Mrs. PH), aliens & Evil Dr. Pork Chop (Hamm)
05.00    Montage of video: Andy plays with toys as he grows up. “Our frienship will never die…”

06.15    A. about to leave for college.  Toys in chest, executing plan to get A.’s attention.
07.30    Calling Andy’s mobile – plan fails as he ignores the toys.
08.00    Staff meeting. Woody: “Andy is gonna put us in the attic.” Toy soldiers give up & leave.
10.00    Woody: “Andy is gonna take care of us. I guarantee it.” Looks at old photo.
11.00    Buzz: “Guarantee it? … At least we’ll all be together.”
13.00    Andy opens chest, looks at toys, puts them in garbage bag. Woody & Buzz separated.

14.00    Andy goes to attic, Molly interrupts. Attic closes. Mom takes bag for garbage.

This is the movie’s first sequence climax. It holds both the Inciting Incident (toys to garbage) and Woody’s Call to Adventure (he witnesses the I.I.). He must act. Note that the ensuing action is not about staying together (a Call he is refusing as he’s accepted Andy’s choice to take Woody with him to college), but rather about saving his friends from the garbage truck, so they can go to the attic.

Sequence B: Woody saving friends, caught in car to daycare. (14mins)

15.00    Think, think, think! Dog Buster is no help: fat & old. Garbage truck getting closer.
16.30    Toys escape under. box J.: “I know what to do!” All in car in box to Sunnyside.
17.30    Woody: Mistake! Car door closes, drives off. W.: “You’ll be begging to go home!”
19.00    Looking through handle hole: Butterfly room. Kids playing peacefully with toys.

20.30    Warmly welcomed by other toys. Lotso: Playing all day. No owners, no heartbreak.
22.30    Ken’s Dreamhouse: Barbie in love with Ken. Lotso gives the toys a tour.
26.00    W.: “We need to go home.!” Toys try to convince him, unsuccessfully.
27.30    Buzz: “This is it? After all we’ve been through?” Extends hand to Woody. Woody refuses.

Woody’s final decision to pursue his overall goal (and initial plan) for this movie isn’t formulated until here: to return to Andy and be there for him when he goes to college. His refusal to accept Buzz’ hand is the movie’s second sequence climax and a reminder of the Inner Journey: he must learn to let go of the past and keep his loyalty to his friends, i.e. Stay Together.
Ironically, after Andy’s decision to separate Woody from his friends (in Sequence A) has been overturned, now the choice is put to Woody. He can stay together with them if he wants, but he chooses not to.
You might want to see the closing of the car door as the end of Act One, as that’s where the toys are leaving their Ordinary World. This is not a deliberate action by Woody, though.
He doesn’t voluntarily enter Sunnyside and the toys being together at that point is still too much of an Ordinary World, offering our hero a sense of comfort. The real separation only happens when Woody deliberately chooses to leave. It feels consistent with the way the sequence is built dramatically. Woody refusing Buzz’ extended hand is a tremendously powerful setup for the heart-wrenching Crisis scene, in which he will accept Buzz’ hand.


Sequence C: Woody escapes. Toys see the less sunny side. (12mins)

28.30    Woody escapes: Corridor – Bathroom – Roof – Glider – Tree. Bonnie finds him.
31.00    Rough playtime. Buzz sees the Butterfly Room – contrast of peace.
33.00    Meeting Bonnie’s toys: heaven for Andy. Being played with & being loved.
35.00    Aftermath. Toys in Caterpillar Room lick their wounds. Moving to Butterfly Room!

36.00    We’re trapped! Open door.  Buzz follows Twitch and Chunk into candy dispenser.
38.30    Buzz overhears gamblers: “Lucky if they last a week.” B. Caught by Big Baby. To library!

Woody’s escape from Sunnyside is a fun ‘threshold sequence’, in which he travels and overcomes barriers to leave the world of Sunnyside.
If you want, you can see Toy Story 3 as a metaphorical tale about the end of (a toy’s) life.
Throughout the film you may recognize symbols of life and death, echoing religious notions of heaven, hell and purgatory. When Bonnie plays with Woody and throws him gently in the air, the image goes in slow motion, showing an ecstatic Woody. This is clearly heaven to him: being played with and being loved. It is no coincidence that this is where Woody will return after he narrowly escapes a burning hell by taking Buzz’ hand, a symbolic repentance.
The sequence ends on a strong climax with Buzz being in jeopardy.

Sequence D: Mid Point Reversal: Truth behind Sunnyside. (12mins)

40.00    Woody tries to leave Bonnie’s place. Toys protest.
40.30    Buzz questioned, Lotso: “We got a keeper!” Buzz reset to Demo mode.
43.00    Mrs. PH’s ‘other eye’ sees A. & Mom. “Woody was telling the truth! We gotta go home!”
44.00    Lotso: “You’re Not Going Anywhere. Lock ’em up!” Buzz ‘disables’ them.
47.30    W. hears Story of Daisy, Chuckles, Lotso and Big Baby.  W: “But… my friends are there!”

Like clockwork, after four of the eight sequences and halfway the movie, the tables are turned.
The Mid Sequence is only the second sequence of Act Two but it falls right in the middle of the story (40mins preceding it, 40mins following it), because Act One is significantly longer than Act Three.

Reversal #1: We have learned that Sunnyside is a very dark place to be, contrary to the first impression the toys had upon arrival.
Reversal #2: As a result of #1, Woody has changed his beliefs about staying with Andy vs. staying together with his friends. (Inner Journey)
eversal #3: Consistent with the progress in his Inner Journey, Woody changes his Outer Journey approach and in stead of returning to Andy’s place, he will return to Sunnyside and help his friends.


Sequence E: Woody back. Getting out tonight! (16mins)

52.00    Lotso: “Rise and shine, campers! Playdate with destiny.” More rough playtime.
53.30    Woody goes back in. Phone gives W. a 4-pronged strategy: “Get rid of that monkey.”

56.30    W. back with toys: “We’re busting out of here. Tonight!” Explains plan to toys.
58.00    Executing the plan: MPH gone – distraction manoeuvre. Woody & Slinky get out.
59.00    MPH escapes from the Box w/ Tortilla. / Woody immobilizes monkey.
60.30    Barbie: “Ken, would you model a few outfits for me?”
61.00    Monkey mummified – Woody finds the key. / Hamm and Rex catch Buzz under box.
63.00    Barbie: no more games, Ken. / Mr. Potato Head: coast clear, toys come out.
64.30    Barbie gets Ken to speak, then gets manual from library, in space suit.
65.30    MPH (tortilla version) vs. Bird / Toys ‘fix’ Buzz but he goes in Spanish Mode.

Act IIb shows a new direction, a clear plan is laid out and a ticking clock speeds up the action. This sequence has a great energy, quite positive for an Act IIb sequence. But this is done deliberately in order to create a stark contrast with the sequence that follows.

Sequence F: Escaping + Woody’s Ordeal & Transformation (15mins)

68.00    MPH (cucumber version) returns. All leave, outsmart Big Baby, who’s on guard.
69.30    Buzz courting Jessie with dance. She is happy to see Woody again.
70.30    Buzz opens the shute. On the other side: Lotso & Co. Phone: “They broke me”.
72.30   L.: “You need to avoid that truck. Join our family again.”
73.30    Woody: what about Daisy? She loved you. Big Baby: “Mama!”
74.00    BB pushes Lotso into garbage container. Alien stuck, Woody helps, is pulled in.
75.00    Too late: toys  in garbage truck. Buzz saves Jessie and is returned to normal.
77.00    Arrival at the dump. Aliens run towards claw but are caught by passing truck.
78.00    Conveyor belt. W.: “Stay together.” Woody and Buzz save Lotso.
79.00    We’re all in this together! Daylight! Not daylight but oven.
79.30    Lotso betrays them. “Where’s your kid now!” All going down.
81.00    All toys holding hands, ready for the end. Woody takes Buzz’ extended hand.
82.00    Light from above. The Claw! Aliens are in control.

This sequence creates instant cinema history. At the Mid Point, Woody chose to stay with his friends. In this Approaching the Inmost Cave stage, the hero’s new belief is tested.
The sequence opens light-heartedly, with Mr Potato Head having changed his disguise from a tortilla to a cucumber. Soon the tone changes, with Big Baby’s creepy reference to The Exorcist and before we know the toys are in the garbage truck with a scene that could be a reference to Star Wars‘ trash compactor scene. This could be mistaken for the story’s Crisis but not for long.
Woody and his friends have lived through all the stages of a toy’s life and they’ve arrived at the dump, where the hero will face the Ordeal, in the Inmost Cave. It will be the story’s lowest point, both literally and figuratively. Woody is on his way to hell (the oven) and before he deserves heaven (Bonnie’s room) he will need to redeem himself.
The moment when the toys are all holding hands, facing death, is hands-down the greatest cinematic moment I have seen in a long time. Woody passes the test glowingly as a transformational hero when he redeems himself for rejecting Buzz at the end of Act One.
The tightness of the screenplay is just astounding at this point. The religious reference is obvious when suddenly the light shines from above, but another layer is added in by the fact that The Claw had always represented the little aliens’ God.


Sequence G: Road Back + Climax. Woody does the right thing (10mins)

83.00    MPH “Eternally grateful.” Lotso onto front of truck. Keep mouth shut!
84.00    W.: “Maybe attic not great idea.” Andy still packing. On garbage truck (with Sid).
85.00    Home, go back in box ‘Attic’. Toys say goodbye to Woody. “Take care of Andy.”
86.00    Andy back in box ‘College’. Mom emotional. “I wish I could always be with you.”
87.00    Woody writes a note. Andy: “Donate?” Mom: “Whatever you wanna do.”
88.00    Andy drives to Bonnie’s place, introduces toys to Bonnie. “Take good care.”
90.30    Bonnie finds Woody: “My cowboy”. Andy confused & conflicted. (Climax)
91.30    Andy’s decision: “You think you can take care of him for me?”

With a Crisis of the magnitude as we’ve seen here, the movie can’t go wrong anymore. Still, surprises keep piling up.
This final installment in the Toy Story saga is different from the others in that Woody interferes with the world of the humans – with lasting impact – more than once. It works perfectly for a number of reasons. I can think of two:
1. If you see the three movies as three acts in the overall arc, it is normal that the hero is more active in the final act. Having Woody change the world of the humans is a fabulous way of making this happen.
2. The toys’ license to interfere with the world of the humans is set up in the very early scene when they call Andy’s mobile phone.
  1. Woody’s final action causes a moment of choice for Andy, similar to Woody’s own journey climax.

Sequence H: A new life for Andy and for the toys.

92.30    Andy: Thanks guys. So long, partner.

93.00    The End.

To conclude, I would like to point out that it is so much easier to analyze a great story – and this is not even a proper analysis, just a rough outline – than it is to write one. The first you can do in a few hours; the last takes a few years. That said, I hope that this analysis helps some people to see the difference between following good writing principles and lazily copying a formula.
Toy Story 3 ticks more boxes than any movie I have seen in recent times, yet it does it in a refreshing way. It also shows that even if you know all the principles, it will still take you years to come up with a story that is worth telling on the big screen.
If you are willing to put in the hard work and understand how an audience’s perception of story works, you can learn how to make your stories work. Just don’t expect to find any shortcuts, anywhere.
Now it’s time to add your comments below!

– Karel Segers

9 thoughts on “Structure: Toy Story 3”

  1. A great structural knock-down – hits all the right notes, much like the film. :) To those who have a problem with structure and formula, it’s hard to argue with audience response. It’s like writers who say, “they just didn’t get it.” Well, if what they “got” isn’t what you intended, you didn’t write it properly.

    Stuctures and formulas exist because we’re all hard-wired in the same basic way. If someone laughs when you stab them, you can be pretty sure they’re “off.” So, if you stab them in the hope they’ll laugh, you’re probably not playing to the majority’s hard-wiring.

    Pixar audiences get the experience they want because the group of writers involved has set those scenes in this particular way. They wrote for the audience, and have recognized that a particular roller coaster gives their audience the best ride.

    Thanks much for breaking this one down, Karel! It’s enlightening to see how critical – in the best sense of the word! – viewers respond to a film.

    On a slightly different tangent, 3D, when you only have vision in one eye (which encompasses a surprisingly large number of people), is a gut-wrenching cinematic experience – reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the script or film.

  2. Ngaire Genge said “(Pixar) wrote for the audience, and have recognized that a particular roller coaster gives their audience the best ride.”

    I’m sure Ngaire means that in the nicest possible sense, as in: “When he told the story ’round the campfire, everyone was rapt, hanging on his every word till the very end.”

    It’s the same roller coaster ride for all humans. We generally have the same wants and needs, and our truest desire is to get to a point where we refer to them in the right order (needs and wants). Confusing them is the human drama.

  3. Hey there –

    I’m the guy you called out on Twitter for being “the one guy who didn’t get it” in regards to Toy Story 3. After reading your above post I began to reconsider some of my analysis.

    It seems painfully obvious to me now that Woody did in fact change. I completely forgot about the initial scene where Woody refuses Buzz’s hand — a problem caused in part by only having seen the film once. That scene, in concert with the furnace sequence, makes his transformation quite apparent.

    Just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to write out this timeline. It helped out greatly during my re-evaluation.

    • Thank you for your gracious comment, Jim. If only most screenwriters would be so open and willing to learn, we’d see better movies.

      I apologize for the rather harsh tone of the Twitter statement.

      I, too, occasionally miss moments in films, moments that later turn out to be essential on one level or another.

  4. I am a sixth grade language arts teacher, and I am going to attempt to teach my students about literary elements using the movie Toy Story 3. Let me say, “THANK YOU!” for taking the time to create this wonderfully thorough story structure… I was wondering if you would mind putting it in a visual format? I am going to get the students to create a plot diagram, but I would love to have an expert’s perspective on this.

  5. Karel,

    My wife and I casually watched the film last night and, like many, were drawn into an exquisite plot with unforgetable characters. In my work as a Lutheran clergyman, I will use of the themes and powerful examples addressing many life situations–particularly in speaking with children. Your framework here, spotlighting the pivot points in the lives of the characters and their relationships, adds much to my appreciation of the film.

    Thank you very much–Eric


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